Luxury buildings continue to go up, yet our housing crisis is more dire than ever. How did we get here?  At the heart of the problem are decades of neglect and a system and government that prioritized real estate over the people.

To empower ourselves to fight back, we need to understand why we are stuck in a cycle of displacement. Then we can look into planning, affordable housing, and community organizing tools that can improve NYCHA, fund more community land trusts, and make our dreams of a livable community a reality.

We need to build coalitions against big real estate and bad landlords, to demand strong protections for tenants and make it clear that the people of this city believe that housing is a human right – not a commodity.

Displacement

Bad landlords are as prevalent in our city as rats.

When market rates go up, landlords raise rents for rent-controlled or stabilized tenants as well – displacing our neighbors in the process. Different tactics are used: from making MCIs (major capital improvements) to justify increased rent, to tenant harassment tactics like construction or (illegally) failing to fix basic conditions like running water, leaky ceilings and broken windows.

Jennifer Gutierrez city council
Jennifer Gutierrez (center) argues that when the city rejects community planning process, communities are left with no recourse to self-determine their future.

At the beginning of the de Blasio administration, legal and community resources were created for tenants because speculation was driving massive and aggressive displacement. However, because of funding restrictions, the roll out focused on a narrow definition of who “vulnerable” communities were – leaving many who needed it without access to legal representation.

So, while a key part of my agenda will be to expand right-to-counsel to all New Yorkers, we need to ask why we are spending so much money supporting tenants facing eviction instead of preventing evictions in the first place. We’re treating the symptoms, not the cause.

Planning

So, how did we get here?

In a word: rezoning. Every community that has been rezoned has seen a huge increase in rents and displacement. We also know that rezoning has a racial impact on our communities – so much so there is a bill in the city council currently to assess segregation in housing when it comes to rezoning.

Zoning is not community planning. The Bushwick community planning process had been a multi year process by the residents of Bushwick to try and identify housing opportunities, preserve the community’s character, secure investments in infrastructure, and expand open space – but when the city rejected the plan, the community was left with no recourse to effectuate the plan and self-determine the future of their community.

Planning forces us to think about more than just housing – it’s about transportation (how will housing decisions impact ridership?), schools (do our schools have capacity or do we need new ones?), open space (will more people saturate our parks?), food (are there adequate markets with affordable fresh options nearby?), and climate justice (are we thinking about resilience?).

But currently, there is no formal process for the city or communities to engage in this kind of long-term planning. If elected, I will work with my colleagues and the next administration to implement a comprehensive planning process. Such a process must be done in close collaboration with communities, while also making proactive investments in communities with a history of disinvestment, and conduct analyses related to displacement risk and segregation. By engaging in such a process, we can collectively identify and meet the city’s needs, while correcting for historic injustices faced by so many of our neighborhoods.

Affordable Housing

Affordable housing programs at the city and state level are supposed to provide incentives for real estate to create housing that’s affordable by giving landlords tax subsidies for density bonuses for constructing buildings if they include affordable housing units.

But affordability is more aligned with market rate rather than the income of the people who live there. That means developers can meet the guideline by charging ~$1850-$2300 for a one bedroom apartment, according to numbers from NYC Housing Connect.

$2,000 a month is not affordable: the average income of a working family of four in Bushwick was between $35,000 and $45,000 two years ago, our salaries for public school teachers start at $45,000-57,000 and hospitality workers making minimum wage could be pulling in less than $30,000 a year.

Worse, when landlords can not find someone to occupy any apartment, they are legally allowed to warehouse it and keep it vacant, further worsening our neighborhood’s housing crisis. There are also zero incentives for affordable housing if developers choose not to take these subsidies.

We need to reduce the amount of flexibility and leverage we give to developers when constructing these new units and we need to fund and strengthen community planning processes – and give them significant time before the city approves contentious construction permits.

But changing tax subsidies and regulations will let big real estate remain a key player in our city’s future – but it is not the only way to build new housing.

Housing Alternatives

Increasing tenant protections, and creating more enforcement across DOB and other agencies is an important step, but real estate is gonna be real estate! How can we create new housing without them?

We need to fundamentally rethink the way we build and care for our city and ensure that housing remains affordable in perpetuity. Two ways we can do that are through community land trusts and non-profit developers.

Community land trusts are a form of cooperatives, an option for a group of people to democratically decide the use of property under the group’s ownership. Community land trusts have been around since the ’60s and we’ve seen them work across the county –the largest being the Champlain Housing Trust, which was founded in 1984 while Bernie Sanders was mayor of Burlington. In New York City, we can look to the Cooper Square CLT which was formed in 1994, for a template. The land is owned by the CLT while the 21 buildings are owned by a Mutual Housing Association, a type of multi-building self-governing cooperative that makes bulk purchases for all the buildings. Over time, most of the apartments were converted from rentals to low-income co-op units. And we’re seeing the rise of CLT groups like these all across the city: in East New York, Western Queens, Far Rockaway, and East Harlem just successfully secured a historic deal with the city.

Here in north Brooklyn, we already utilize this model in the form of HDFC co-ops. The city looked at buildings that were in disarray and turned to the tenants to become shareholders and gave locals a rare opportunity to own and oversee the governance of these properties. Communities came together and built up these spaces through their sweat equity and through low-interest loans provided through the city – all without leaning on private real estate developers.

Non-profit developers and owners are all also across the district already, from the St Nicks Alliance to HDFC Los Sures to Riseboro to the People’s Firehouse.

Non-profit developers don’t have the same profit-driven incentives as big real estate developers. With sufficient support from the city, they are well situated to pursue development that keep community needs in mind. Nonprofits have, so far, been highly successful at using a combination of public funds and grants, tax credits, and traditional financing to complete these projects in communities that desperately need them.

The solutions are there: we just need to have the collective will to enact them.

In a constantly changing community, we have to ask ourselves how do we make Bushwick livable for everyone? The constant displacement of having to move carries trauma with it and denies us our ability to build strong, powerful communities.

Whether you’ve been here for 50 years, 5 years or 5 months, we all are experiencing the same fears of displacement, especially during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. We all need to be aware of our own individual actions, have compassion for those that lived in our apartments before us, invest in the community by talking to your neighbors, shopping locally, cleaning up parks and joining coalitions and together we can stop the cycle of displacement and loss of our homes.

This is not a war between neighbors – it’s one against powerful special interests and against big real estate developers.

When you exercise your rights as a tenant and educate yourself and your neighbors, you send a strong message to landlords that this city is a city for tenants. We should exercise our right to remain, send our children to local public schools, and fight to stay in the community we invest in. We are all part of this housing justice movement together and, if elected as your next city council member, I will fight to lead this movement alongside you.


Jennifer Gutierrez is chief of staff to Councilman Antonio Reynoso and is a candidate in the Democratic Party primary for city council’s 34th District, which represents parts of Bushwick, East Williamsburg and Ridgewood. The election takes place on June 22.

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